Lyle Spencer

Pujols looking to join forces with Morales

Spencer: Pujols looking to bond with Morales

Pujols looking to join forces with Morales
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Underscoring the team theme, sluggers are most fondly remembered in tandem.

Ruth and Gehrig. Mantle and Maris. Mays and McCovey. Aaron and Mathews. Canseco and McGwire. Bonds and Kent. Ramirez and Ortiz.

There is a sound baseball reason that two is much better than one in the heart of an order. Like good cops on the beat, they serve and protect for the overall good and for each other, giving pitchers a double-take accompanied by an instant headache.

Walk the Babe or the Say Hey Kid intentionally? The Iron Horse or Stretch plan to make you pay.

Arriving in his new environment on Monday morning, Albert Pujols quickly made contact with Kendrys Morales, a guy who could make life easier, happier and, yes, even louder in King Albert's debut season with the Angels.

Rest assured, American League pitchers do not want to see Pujols and Morales back-to-back.

Placed between Bobby Abreu and Torii Hunter in the home clubhouse at Tempe Diablo Stadium, Pujols soon had a conversation going with Morales a few lockers down to his left. They carried it onto the practice field in the Minor League complex, taking swings and having a good time in front of some highly enthused fans.

Day One of the Pujols Era later featured a reality television show for MLB Network framed as a press conference at the Marriott Buttes Resort, perched on a hilltop overlooking Pujols' new Spring Training facility.

Pujols discussed a wide range of subjects, including the potential role Morales -- making a second comeback attempt from a shattered left ankle -- can play if he's able to swing a bat with meaning and feeling.

"It was great," Pujols said when asked about the interaction with Morales. "I got the opportunity to meet him a couple of years ago when they came to St. Louis. Even though you don't play against the guy, you know who he is. Great leader.

"Obviously, if he's healthy this year, he's going to help out this ballclub huge. He told me he's feeling good and he's really excited, and I think everybody I know is very excited for him and the way that he's rehabbing. So, I'm looking forward to being a part of this organization and with him in the lineup."

In Matt Holliday, Pujols had a respected partner with the Cardinals the past two seasons. Holliday handled his role capably for the reigning World Series champions, knocking home runners on those rare occasions Albert left them out there.

Pujols led the National League in intentional walks four times, peaking at 44 in 2009 when he was unloading 47 homers and driving in 135 runs. Imagine what those numbers would have looked like with, say, 22 more at-bats with men in scoring position.

A healthy Morales can cut Pujols' intentional passes in half.

It's not as if Pujols needs protection, of course. If he's sound, he'll rack up his 30-plus homers and 100-plus RBIs and hit somewhere between .300 and .340. That's pretty much a given.

But if Morales is the Morales of 2009, or even a reasonable facsimile, Pujols' numbers could climb back toward his own 2009 realm.

Fit and determined to prove his worth as Mark Teixeira's replacement at first in '09, Morales generated 34 homers and 108 RBIs, hitting .306. He finished fifth in the AL's Most Valuable Player balloting.

He hasn't been seen in live-game action since landing awkwardly on home plate in May 2010 on the heels of a grand-slam celebration, creating damage in his lower left leg that has required two surgical repairs.

The Angels never recovered from Morales' absence in '09, falling behind Texas in the AL West. They came to camp last spring hopeful he'd be back in prime-time form. When it was clear he was done for the season, there was disappointment, and the club soldiered on, once again chasing the Rangers in vain with a hole in the lineup.

Morales is a designated-hitter candidate now, joining Abreu and Mark Trumbo in pursuit of at-bats in a potentially deep, dangerous lineup. The outfield is set with Vernon Wells, Peter Bourjos and Hunter left to right, with Abreu and young dynamo Mike Trout eager to step in should any of the three falter or go down with an injury.

Trumbo also is in the outfield picture along with veteran Ryan Langerhans and athletic Jeremy Moore, giving Angels manager Mike Scioscia a wide range of options.

Pujols will be at first virtually every day, with an occasional DH assignment. Trumbo, the AL Rookie of the Year runner-up and club leader with 29 homers and 87 RBIs as the first baseman, will try to transition to third, a position Pujols will play only in an emergency.

Morales, a switch-hitter, clearly is the best of all worlds batting behind Pujols. The other cleanup candidates -- Hunter, Wells, Trumbo -- are right-handed hitters. A lefty bat breaks up a run of right-handed swingers.

Abreu, the most proven run producer on the club besides Pujols, will be slotted second or even first when he plays, taking advantage of his on-base efficiency and baserunning ability.

Morales is confident he's ready to make his return after frustrating himself as much as everyone else last spring with his inability to run, leading to the second surgery.

"He's really good," Morales said of Pujols. "We've really improved the team a lot, with pitching and batting and in all departments. Nobody can say anything else. This team has improved a lot."

But until he shows he can play at, say, 80 percent, Morales is the X factor. Even unable to run full tilt, his presence would prevent opposing managers from waving Pujols to first without hesitation.

The signing of Pujols serves countless purposes, not the least of which is removing pressure from Morales to hurry back. He can take his time, sure step by sure step.

With Pujols around, the Angels know they can win without Morales. He's icing on an already tasty cake, creating a much calmer environment for everyone concerned.

On the subject of food, always one of his favorites, Scioscia shed 37 pounds over the winter, and it shows. He hasn't looked this good in several years.

Pujols, generous soul that he is, doesn't want his boss to revert to eating in frustration.

Reasonably healthy and productive, Morales will help Albert keep their manager content -- and svelte.

Lyle Spencer is a columnist for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.